The thing about living history is that it is alive precisely because it is embedded within modernity. And so on Saturday and Sunday as Civil War re-enactors in blue and gray wool uniforms fired blank-loaded Springfield rifles and the sulfurous black powder smoke of cannons drifted over the grass at the Union Mills Homestead, women in 19th century hoop dresses filmed the battle with smartphones, a man in a Confederate Army uniform could be seen taking a photo of a 1956 Dodge in the parking lot and a snowball truck in colorful Caribbean hues stood waiting by the side.
"I think you'll see some of the re-enactors headed to the snowballs after the skirmish," said Jane Sewell, executive director of the Homestead. As small arms popped in puffs of smoke behind her, she talked of how the Homestead has hosted a Civil War living history encampment for at least a decade.
"Before the battle of Gettysburg, both armies camped here within four hours of each other," Sewell said. "J.E.B. Stuart's troops moved out and General Barnes under Meade's Fifth Corps moved in."
Stuart's Confederate troops and the Union soldiers never crossed swords at the Homestead and so the true to history re-enactments are the drilling and camping of the two forces, according to Sewell, but the two sides tend to choreograph a skirmish for the public anyway.
"It has just steadily grown," she said. "It's gotten bigger, and I think the community just loves to come out and just see it."
The Bonebrake family — mother, Jenny; father, Thomas; and children, Liam, 5, and Kalyn, 6 — certainly enjoyed the experience when they dropped by Saturday, the first re-enactment the children had seen.
"We actually live right up the road; we pass by every day. I've always wanted to stop in, and we saw the event and thought, what better time," Jenny Bonebrake said. "I think it's especially important that the young ones understand the history and how we have the life we have today."
History and young people are what motivated Jacky Burns, of Morris County, New Jersey, and Jackie Heubuch, of Orange County, New York. Despite hailing from Yankee country, both women are part of the Second Texas Dismounted Cavalry, having gotten involved when their teenage sons became interested. They wore period dresses to the weekend skirmishes.
"I will say it's been a great opportunity for the young men because at 15, 16, when they were starting out, it gave them an opportunity to learn more and be able to have intellectual conversations and real good dialogue with older men who knew the history the way they did," Burns said. "They could share at a peer level and feel really respected and dignified."
"Our unit is more family-based and we are family-oriented," Heubuch added. "We try to keep things wholesome and healthy for that reason."
And having folks like Heubuch at the encampment really gives visitors a chance to see all aspects of life in the Civil War era, from the tactics on the field of battle to the campfires, cooking and sewing behind the scenes, according to Sewell.
"We love having the re-enactors here. There are a lot of them here this year — more than we've had in the past," she said. "It's a wonderful weekend."